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Power in the hands of good people is useful because they use it to serve and improve the lives of others. On the contrary, bad people with power may abuse it to promote their own selfish interests. Furthermore, they abuse the power to oppress and cause violence and pain to their fellow human beings.
Many leaders abuse their power and oppress the people they rule. Many of Shakespeare’s plays portray how power corrupts people. The abuse of power is evident in some characters in Shakespeare’s plays namely, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Titus Andronicus and Richard III. Some of the characters in the plays change once they receive power or get a promise of acquiring power; they allow greed and blind ambition to corrupt them until they meet their downfall.
Macbeth is a good example of a person who becomes corrupt because he has been promised power. The play was written in England during the time when there was a threat to the king and his throne. The people loved the king and Shakespeare wrote the play in his honor just as other writers pen praise leaders they admire (Macbeth as Royal Play 1).
Macbeth first learns that he would become King in the future from the three witches. The once virtuous man starts to change and becomes a villain and wicked person full of evil, as the hunger for power begins to grow in him. The wife, Lady Macbeth, urges him to kill King Duncan and ascend to the throne and increases his ambition for power (Bloom 20).
Macbeth does not want to kill because he thinks sanely, and knows it is wrong to kill “Will great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/clean from my hand?” (Shakespeare a 2. 2.58-59). He overcomes his doubts and decides to kill Kind Duncan because he thinks he is the obstacle to the throne.
He has become an evil man ready to betray even a friend like he did to King Duncan thought Macbeth is a genuine friend. Thus, blind ambition leads to cruelty like the one shown to King Duncan by his friend Macbeth and his wife. Power corrupts and makes people forget their morals and commit unspeakable deeds.
Greed is a vice that causes people to commit evil. The vice occurs to people who get into power through underhand dealings. They desire to consolidate their illegitimate power and in order to do so, they unleash violence on the people who are perceived to be threats to their power.
Macbeth ascends to the throne, he is determined to hold on to the throne, and so he must get rid of Banquo and his family because the witches had predicted that the throne would go to his sons. He kills Banquo and his son hence adding more blood on his hands. On the other hand, his ascension to the throne drives him and Lady Macbeth apart and she later commits suicide. Macbeth becomes more violent as he desperately tries to keep his power. He plans to kill Macduff as well.
He does not feel any remorse about his evil way as illustrated by his words “I am in blood/stepped in so far that, should I wade no more/returning were as tedious as go o’er” (Shakespeare a 3.4.153-137). He plans to kills Macduff and his family as well and yet he is not a threat to him “Seize upon Fife; give to the edge o’ the sword /His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls/That trace him in his line (Shakespeare a 4.1.131-135).
His greed is so strong that he seeks an oracle from the three sisters and he is told that he is invincible and cannot be harmed by a mortal man. He believes the oracle, and goes to war but he is killed in the war. His greed for power drives him to his death the ultimate downfall.
Lady Macbeth is a strong willed character. She desires to become powerful, and once she learns about the prophecy concerning her husband ascension to the throne her hunger for power heightens.
She wants King Duncan dead for her husband to become a king. She wishes to kill him herself but she cannot and tells her husband to do it instead. Macbeth is tempted by the power to execute the evil plan but backs out,”We will proceed no further in this business:” (Shakespeare a 1.6.33).
However, Lady Macbeth mocks him out of anger because she is ambitious, and wants to become the Queen. She attacks his manhood by telling him “And live a coward in thine own esteem, /Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,” (Shakespeare a 1.6.46-47).
She is very ambitious and greedy for power. Her ambition makes her cruel, and shows no regard for the sanctity of human life. Eventually, Lady Macbeth becomes the queen but she does not enjoy the power that she fought so hard to gain.
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She starts to think about her actions, and guilt consumes her. She keeps seeing the scenes from the murder of King Duncan ““Yet here’s a spot…/ Out, damned spot! Out, I say! – One; two; why, / then ‘tis time to dot. –Hell is murky. – Fie, my/ lord, fie! A soldier and afeard? What need we/ fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? / Yet who would have thought the old man/ to have had so much blood in him?” (Shakespeare a 5.1.31-36).
In addition, the innocent death of Banquo disturbs her until the weight of her sins drive her crazy to commits suicides. Thus, the greed for power leads Lady Macbeth to her downfall.
The play Richard III was written during the Elizabethan era. During that time, Calvinism, the religion that believes God determines human actions, and rewards good human behavior with good and returns evil with evil was gaining root in England.
Thus, Richard got the reward he deserved of dying in the war for all the evil he had committed against innocent people. Shakespeare wrote the play and incorporated the people’s belief about God’s punishment in Richard III. Richard was an evil man who had risen to power illegitimately and killed many people during his brief reign, and he would be punished at the end for his behavior.
The playwright also incorporated the beliefs of the Protestant Reform believers who believed in common grace from God and justice. Richard is an evil man and Margaret calls him “”hell’s black intelligencer” (Shakespeare b 4.4.7) Therefore, the downfall of Richard in the pay was a punishment from God to England for the way he had treated Richard II and Richard would help to root out the evil in the society in readiness for a new King.
The new King who gave hope to England was Henry VII who signified a new beginning after the death of Richard III (Baldwin, P and Baldwin T 62). Richard III dies in the war “God and your arms be praised, victorious friends,/ The day is ours, the bloody dog is dead” (Shakespeare b 5.1.1-2). Richard dies as a dog and Richmond takes over the reign and ushers in a new dawn.
Richard is ambitious for power, and does everything in his power to become King. He is physically challenged as he says in the opening scene of the play “I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty/ To strut before a wanton ambling nymph; / I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,/ Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,/Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time” (Shakespeare b 1.1.16-20).
During the renaissance period, the deformity of the body was as a curse and people with the deformity did not stand a chance of succeeding. Richard knew his disadvantages but he was a shrew character or a very clever cunning man, and he used his deformity to ascend the throne (Schaap 26).
His stature is not attractive, and he says that even dogs bark at him but he is determined to attain power and he will ensure that his brothers Clarence and King Edward IV turn against each other by falsely accusing Clarence of planning to kill the King. He kills his brother Clarence who was in line to the throne. Thus, after the death of King Edward IV, he ascends to the throne.
However, before he climbs the throne he has to clear his way by removing any obstacle that might hinder his quest for power. He pretends he is a good man even though we know he is a villain or a wicked man because of his ambition for power.
He is acting in his evil ways “But then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture,/Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:/And thus I clothe my naked villainy/With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;/ And seem a saint, when most I play the devil” (Shakespeare b1.3.28). He plots against his brother Clarence to be killed because he is greedy for power, and the brother would be a hindrance. The ambition for power engulfs Richard and he kills all the people considered supporters of the princess. His greed has made him blind.
Once on the throne Richard kills innocent people. He orders the assassination of his nephews the young princes. Power can corrupt, and Richard was no exception he did not care even for people close to him such as his wife Ann whom he killed. Finally, he lost the support of people and even his mother cursed him. He died in the war because his greed for power blinded him, and brought his downfall on himself.
Titus Andronicus a Roman general believes in Rome. He respects the Roman law, and follows it to the letter. He allows Sartininus to become King even though he had threatened him. Sartininus marries Queen of the Goth Tamora an enemy of Titus. Titus has power but he uses it wrongly first by killing Alarbus and his son Martius. The people in power kill his sons in jail and he swears to revenge their deaths.
Titus has suffered so much, he does not expect any justice for the wrongs committed against his loved ones, and he decides to take matters into his own hands. We see his gradual downfall from the war hero at the beginning of the play to a man who does not care much about his status when he puts on the uniform of a cook during the banquet (Escolà 72). Saturninus asks him why he is dressed as a cook and he says, “Because I would be sure to have all well / To entertain your highness and your Empress” (Shakespeare c 4.2.31-32).
However, his mission is not to serve but to seek revenge and he is able to disguise his intentions well. He later kills Tamora’s sons and bakes their remains in a pie that he serves Tamora and her husband. He decides to kill his daughter and put her out of her misery because she had become dependent on him for everything such as feeding her as he tells her during dinner “Come, let’s fall to, and, gentle girl, eat this (Shakespeare c 3.2.54).
Eventually he kills Tamora and Saturninus kills him. Lucius kills Saturninus to avenge his father’s death. Titus death is brought about by his abuse of power at the beginning of the play when he sacrifices Tamora’s son. The killing starts his downfall journey as revenge sets in and leaves many other people dead including him.
Furthermore, Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream uses power against people close to him. For instance, Oberon is jealous about his wife, and hence he becomes cruel to her. He reduces her sexuality to that of an animal when he uses magic to cause her cuckold an donkey, it means Oberon can use his power to get whatever he requires without regard for other people.
He does not care how his wife would feel about getting involved with a donkey. He is vengeful towards his wife, and uses his power to exercise power over his wife. It is important to note that during the Elizabethan era when the play was written the society was patriarchal. Men dominated over the women and marriage served as the ultimate way to tame women.
The women who got married would be under the authority of their husbands and before marriage, their fathers controlled them. A woman who got married was seen to have achieved in the society and thus marriages were very important to women in order to gain respect in the society (The Life and roles of Elizabethan Era Women 1).
Oberon, the king of the fairies is the husband of Queen Titania. His character changes from time to time. He can be compassionate especially when he sympathizes Helena because of her troubles with Demetrius. He uses his magic to help her get the love and attention of Demetrius. Furthermore, he ensures the Athenian lovers get suitable partners and blesses them to bear beautiful children.
On the contrary, he uses his power to get his way. His jealous and abuse of power is evident when his wife refuses to give her foster child to him whom he desires.
Puck tells us the reason for Oberon’s jealous towards the child “And jealous Oberon would have the child/ Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild; / But she perforce withholds the loved boy, / Crowns him with flowers and makes him all her joy (Shakespeare d 2.1.23-26). Oberon is power hungry and wants to take away the boy from Titania to make him his slave. He wants to show his wife how much power he wields over her.
Oberon is even abusive of his wife, and calls her “Tarry, rash wanton: am not I thy lord?” (Shakespeare d 2.1.63). The king of the fairies will use his power to control everyone he desires. Power has corrupted him, and he does not hesitate to abuse for his self-interests. He does not show his wife respect, and reminds her he is the lord hence she should obey his commands without questioning. Surely, power has made Oberon a ruthless man.
His ruthlessness is seen clearly, after he decides to make his wife fall in love with Bottom. He gives Bottom an ass head, and makes his wife fall for him using his magic. His greed for the Indian boy blinds him to an extent of not caring whether his wife falls for a beast. His ambition to get the boy for himself is very great and nothing will stand in his way.
Oberon uses magic juice upon his wife as he tells his servant Punk “I’ll watch Titania when she is asleep, /And drop the liquor of it in her eyes. /The next thing then she waking looks upon,/Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,/On meddling monkey, or on busy ape,/She shall pursue it with the soul of love:” (Shakespeare d 2.1.). He turns Bottom’s head into an donkey’s and Titania falls for him. Her attention shifts from the boy as she pursues her lover and Oberon gets the boy he desires. Therefore, power and greed makes Oberon ruthless.
Furthermore, Oberon uses his power to conquer women. He has a big love for other women apart from his wife. She accuses him of having affairs with women outside their marriage. For example, Titania accuses him about his affair with Hippolyta.
She also accuses of involvement with Philida “To amorous Philida. Why at thou here” (Shakespeare d 2.1.68). the affairs he has with a string of women show that Oberon uses his power to win over women and leaves one for another. He is not concerned about his wife’s feelings because he feels he is her lord. Thus, he can do anything he wants without fear or shame because he has power, which he can use to maneuver his wife.
Oberon’s power not only affects people close to him, but every other person too. Titania tells him that their fights have been very violent and they have affected even the seasons “But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport. /Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,” (Shakespeare d 2.1.87-88).
The interruptions of the seasons by their brawls make other people suffer such as farmers who plant in vain “The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn” (Shakespeare d 2.1.94). The people face danger of starvation because of crop failure “The fold stands empty in the drowned field,” (Shakespeare d 2.1.96). The power does not directly lead to Oberon’s downfall but the power he possesses causes disruptions in the universe
Lastly, power corrupts and some people use it wrongly for their own selfish gains. Many people admire power, try all means possible to attain it, and may kill some people to clear the way.
After killing and manipulating their way to power, they have to come up with ways of keeping the power and thus they continue the streak of evil ways that they used to acquire the power. Innocent people who appear as legitimate threats to power are eliminated because the leaders fear of losing it and become paranoid. Once in power leaders become greedy.
They cannot think of someone else ruling, and the desire to hold on to power intensifies. The more they try to hold on the more they become corrupt villains who hurt instead of protecting their subjects. Using the Machiavellian thinking, they do everything to remain in power. However, the greed and blind ambition for power leads to destruction of self and even society. The people corrupted by power end up in a downfall because they do not know when to stop committing evil and eventually it comes back to them and destroy them.
Baldwin, Pat and Tom Baldwin, (eds.). Cambridge School Shakespeare: King Richard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
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Escolà, Jordi Coral. “Vengeance Is Yours: Reclaiming the Social Bond in the Spanish Tragedy and Titus Andronicus.” Atlantis, 29.2 (2007): 59-74.
Macbeth as a Royal Play. Web.
Schaap, Katherine. “Enabling Richard: the Rhetoric of Disability in Richard III.” Disability Studies Quartley, 29.4 (2009): 26.
Shakespeare, William a. The tragedy of Macbeth. Web.
Shakespeare, William b. Richard III. Web.
Shakespeare, William c. Titus Andronicus. Web.
Shakespeare, William d. A midsummer night’s dream. Web.